SWIMNEWS ONLINE: February 1996 Magazine Articles

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Cecil M. Colwin

Louis de Breda Handley, for nearly 40 years, was amateur coach to the highly successful Women's Swimming Association (WSA) of New York. Handley's swimmers held 51 world records, won over 200 AAU Women's National Senior Championships, and 30 National Relay Team National Championships. And Handley never received a penny for coaching them!

Not only did he teach the WSA women to swim fast and well, but he continuously and persistently instilled in them respect for the amateur code, and the sport they represented. Today, Handley probably would be unkindly regarded as a naive, laughable, and even pathetic anachronism. Nowadays, the word "amateur" is generally interpreted to mean: "a person without professional expertise." But, at the turn of the century, an amateur was one who pursued sport for the thrill of it, not to mention the challenge of good clean competition. Yes, believe it or not, the athletes of yesteryear competed merely for the enjoyment, and love of the sport and without being paid, or subsidized. In those days, this behaviour had something to do with an ideal that was known as "the Olympic Spirit." Remember it?

By the early twenties, the Women's Swimming Association of New York had become "the most prominent club of its kind in existence, and the undisputed leader in national and international water sports for women." Despite the fame achieved by the club's swimmers, their mentor, L. deB. Handley, always warned that "the girls should not lose their sense of proportion when success began to crown their efforts in competition. Good sportsmanship is greater than victory", he said, and this became the club motto, emphasized over and over again. It was displayed on the pool deck; it appeared repeatedly in the WSA News, and, in fact, was even prominently displayed on the club's stationery.

Handley's Advice to the Ambitious

Handley believed that water sports were "most enjoyable and profitable, providing one follows them in the proper spirit." However, he felt that, if undue importance was attached to success, so that victory became the paramount consideration, and defeat left "a feeling of disappointment and humiliation, then the zest goes out of the game and it no longer represents pastime and recreation, as it should."

Handley said that it was natural to like to win, and moreover, every contestant should devote all efforts, both in practice and competition, to achieve success. But the athlete would derive the greatest pleasure and the most benefit from racing, who, having done one's best, "is able to accept victory modestly and defeat smilingly, taking each as a part of the game and looking on the sport merely as interesting play."

Handley stressed that parents could do a great deal to help on this point. He said: "All too often, unfortunately, they are so eager to see their daughters win, so unreasonable and downhearted when they fail to do so, that they influence the youngster's attitude most unfavorably, at times to the extent of making the sport a task instead of play."

Handley said that this was the more regretable in that it was not within the scope of every swimmer to become a champion, nor even a star of exceptional ability. Said Handley: "In swimming, as in every other branch of athletics, champions are born, not made. Especial natural gifts, not in build and strength, but in watermanship, are essential to the development of a champion. These gifts are vouchsafed to a very few only and all the coaching, all the acquired skill in the world, will not make championships of the others.

L.deB. Handley around 1918 - 20
For larger 64k photo click on image.

"Let none be discouraged if one fails to attain front rank in short order. Frequently latent ability does not develop at once. Usually it takes years for a potential champion to learn to exploit one's natural resources. Moreover, though it is not within the ken of all to become topnotchers, any normal girl or woman may acquire sufficient skill to enjoy competition, win prizes and laurels occasionally and improve her health and physique the while. Practice and perseverance will accomplish this every time."

Difficulties in Learning the Early Crawl Stroke

It should be remembered that, all the time, Handley was doing pioneer work in developing the crawl stroke. Among members of the public, there was no real knowledge of how the crawl should be performed.

They knew that this was a "novelty stroke" that provided unusual speed, and they had a hazy idea that one should try to keep the arms going round and round nonstop, while at the same time fluttering the feet up and down, in an alternating action. But, how was one to breathe amidst this welter of flying foam? The prime thought in the minds of most beginners was "breathe!, survive!, exist!, get oxygen!"

The result was that many early crawl swimmers breathed in so much air with each gasp that little lung space remained for more air, when the next chance to inhale came around again. This was the main problem in learning the new crawl stroke; most swimmers didn't know how to breathe regularly, and when they did manage to gasp in air, they usually took in too much, so that they quickly became fatigued. And when swimmers finally managed to acquire a basic idea of breathing technique, they often experienced difficulty in pacing this fast energy-consuming stroke over a set distance, with the result they quickly became breathless, and had to stop frequently to rest.

Even the Champion Stopped to Breathe

In the early days of using the crawl stroke for distances over 100 yards, it was a common spectacle to see even the best swimmers being forced to stop periodically to regain their breath. These problems were caused by a combination of faulty breathing and poor pacing.

A description of such an incident was contained in the Detroit News (March, 26,'1921) account of the National 500 yard swimming championship, contested between three national champions, Margaret Woodbridge, Charlotte Boyle and Helen Wanwright: "Miss Woodbridge retained her title in 7:33 2/5, a time that was not a record, but it was Charlotte Boyle who finished second, who was the heroine of the race. At 300 yards Miss Boyle was in the lead. She set a new world's mark at this distance when she covered it in 4:21 1/5. From the 300 yard mark on to 375 yards, Miss Boyle held her lead. Then suddenly she stopped.

"She continued the race, but not until she had lost yardage. Miss Woodbridge was fully 10 yards in advance of the New York girl when Charlotte started after her rest.

"At 400 yards Miss Boyle again stopped swimming, even longer this time than she did at 375 yards. Miss Woodbridge was now well out in front. With but 50 yards to go Miss Boyle cut loose with a sprint that was sensational. She quickly narrowed the gap separating her from Miss Woodbridge, but the distance was too great to be overcome in such a short length and Miss Woodbridge won by a two yard margin. At the 400 yard mark Miss Woodbridge set a new record for that distance, her time being 5:57 4/5.

"At the conclusion of the race, and after the swimmers had gained breath, Miss Boyle was closely questioned as none present understood her actions in twice stopping while the race was on. Miss Boyle explained that she was unable to get air into her lungs.

"The final stage of the race witnessed Miss Boyle's most sensational performance. She swam that final 50 yards as though she was starting a 50-yard sprint. At the conclusion of the race she was given an unusual ovation by the spectators, who recognized in her feat a performance of most extraordinary merit."

The Action of the Head in Swimming

Handley was among the first to appreciate the difficulties encountered by novices in learning the crawl breathing technique, and also in attempting to pace themselves effectively and economically. Accordingly, he made a point of writing on these two topics. Handley's descriptions may seem quaint to the modern reader. But remember that these could well have been the first attempts at accurate analysis ever made. Here follows Handley's advice on the crawl head action:

"In swimming the modern crawl stroke the action of the head affects to a large degree the action of the entire stroke, and it is all important to use it correctly. It should be held erect always and merely twisted for the purpose of breathing, never raised or lowered, nor bent toward either shoulder."

Handley said that the head movement should be timed accurately with the movements of the arms, "so that it would turn to inhale throughout the recovery of the top-arm (that on the breathing side) and kept straight, in normal position, throughout the recovery of the other arm, while one exhales under water. Moreover, it should not be turned to inhale until downward pressure on the water has been applied with the under-arm, nor turned back to normal until pressure has been applied with the top-arm.

"A mechanical way to insure its correct carriage is to look at right-angles to the body, along the surface, throughout the recovery of the top-arm, then to shift the glance forward, straight ahead, as one turns it back to normal. After breathing, and during the whole recovery of the under-arm, the eyes should be approximately at water level."

Handley on Learning Pace

On the question of learning pace, Handley advocated that time trials, "in the accepted sense," should be few and far between, because they "serve no particular purpose and have a disturbing influence on the mind of girl and woman contestants."

However, he believed that "swimming under the watch when going at moderate speed is decidely profitable." Handley said that this method "helps to develop ability to judge pace and this is one of the most valuable accomplishments of the competitor, for it provides knowledge of how fast a gait one may hold over any given course without fear of tiring before the end."

Handley maintained that the perfect pace is one that distributes one's fund of energy evenly throughout the course being covered, so that one reaches the finish unexhausted, yet without an excess of reserve power.

Handley said: "It is through such a pace that a swimmer best exploits natural resources and makes the fastest times. Tricky contestants often try to get the best of a feared rival by sprinting and slowing up alternately, a method that sometimes succeeds against a nervous antagonist, but the system affects performances invariably. The swimmer who holds a steady gait will develop a maximum of speed and improve her chances always."

Handley said that it followed naturally that one should not be influenced by the actions of opponents in racing. "Quite frequently some opponent will set out at an untenable pace and those who try to keep up with her inevitably must tire before completing the course. Again, a fast sprinter engaged in a middle or long distance race may hold back in the hope that the rest of the field will do the same and afford her the chance to win out in the final dash. But the girl who swims her own race, regardless of what others may do, never makes a mistake. She may not win, but she will display the best peformance of which she is capable."

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